Dr. Hans Christian Midelfart (1865 – 1937): Doctor & Visionary
“There is hope as long as your fishing-line is in the water” - Norwegian proverb
In the late 1800s, Dr. Hans Christian Midelfart crossed the Atlantic Ocean from Norway and into Eau Claire. With a strong vision and undying devotion to helping others, he soon founded what would become one of the largest healthcare organizations in the Midwest.
Born in Christiania (now known as Oslo), Norway, Midelfart was inspired by his family doctor to study medicine. After graduating from King Fredrik’s University in Christiania, he heard news that a physician in Eau Claire, Dr. I. A. Juel, needed a year-long substitute for his practice. Midelfart eagerly set sail, arriving in the Chippewa Valley in 1892.
At the time of his arrival, Eau Claire was experiencing substantial growth becaue of its fertile soil and plentiful forests. He noticed, however, that the city had only 20 physicians, the majority of whom were only moderately trained. Injury rates were high from logging accidents, and Midelfart felt the surgeries being performed were too quick and lacked the proper equipment.
When the year was up, Midelfart returned to Europe with a goal to learn as much as he could about surgery. He studied in France, Germany and Austria before returning to Eau Claire in 1895.
His return to America was met with success – he married Margarita Hande, a newspaper editor from Chicago, and teamed up with Wisconsin physician Dr. Johan Berger Mathiesen to establish the Midelfart Clinic on Barstow Street.
Contrary to the majority of medical practices at the time, Midelfart strongly believed in specialization. He theorized that by working together, physicians could develop their own areas of specialty and provide personalized assistance to a wide range of patients.
“Dr. Hans Christian Midelfart brought the concept of group practice to this part of Wisconsin,” said Dr. Randall Linton, Luther Midelfort – Mayo Health System president and chief executive officer. “And the collaboration among Dr. Midelfart and Drs. William and Charles Mayo years ago has led to what is today the presence of Mayo Clinic in Eau Claire.”
Around the turn of the century, many Scandinavian families were immigrating to the Eau Claire area in search of better work opportunities. In February 1905, a group of community members met to discuss plans for a hospital. An executive decision was made to establish Luther Hospital.
Being familiar with Midelfart’s community involvement, the group appointed him to a position on the hospital board. His work was admired by many, and he was noted as generously giving his time, advice and interest.
“Dr. Midelfart’s coming to Eau Claire as a Norwegian immigrant really mirrors the development of Eau Claire in general,” Linton said. “Luther Midelfort – with the longtime tie between Luther Hospital and Midelfort Clinic – has grown up along with Eau Claire. There’s a long history.”
Midelfart’s belief in equality and affordable healthcare for everyone was carried into Luther’s philosophy. An article from the Eau Claire Leader in 1916 described Luther Hospital as this: “It is the first of all an Eau Claire institution for ALL the people, its doors are open to every sufferer, with no shadow of restriction as to the color of their skin or of their money, or the shade of their religious belief.”
Aside from his medical expertise and tremendous generosity, Midelfart also was a follower of the fine arts, co-founding the Philharmonic Singing Society.
In the late 1920s, a growing relationship among Midelfart and Drs. William and Charles Mayo in Rochester, Minn. took root.
“They had a high level of respect and a big influence on each other,” Linton said, pointing to letters between the men that are archived.
Since Midelfart’s death in 1937, the legacies he started have grown and continue to affect the lives of thousands in the Eau Claire area. In 1992, Luther Hospital and what was then known as Midelfort Clinic became part of Mayo Clinic.
Over a century later, it’s easy to say Midelfart is proof that hard work, dedication and generosity can lead to amazing accomplishments.
Article Credit: Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce Business Hall of Fame. By Eric Larson.